The following excerpt is from the novel Napoleon's Gold by Thomas Pullyblank, forthcoming from Square Circle Press in June 2011. A previous excerpt from Napoleon's Gold appeared in the August, 2010. issue of TI Life. In this excerpt Tom Pullyblank produces an important character in the story--a fisherman and born-in-the-blood River Rat named Billy Masterson. His inclusion in this excerpt will make a poignant contrast with the super-formal ball hosted by another iconic river character, the wealthy industrialist Raphael Ostend, who Tom hopes to introduce in an excerpt to be shared with our readers in the spring.
(The time is late September 2001. Tom Flanagan, whose parents and brother died in a boating accident on the river five years before, has returned to his family cottage in Thousand Island Park to reconnect with his past and to continue his father's search for Napoleon's Gold. Part of Tom's search consists of listening to the tales of his father's friends, the River Rat Reporters, each of whom knows something about what and where Napoleon's Gold is.
The following excerpt is the first part of a conversation between Tom and Billy Masterson, a life-long River Rat, "fishing guide extraordinaire" and autodidact SCUBA diver. Benjamin Fries is the assumed name of Albert Hartman, founder of the Preserve the Islands environmental advocacy group. Ben Fries also appears as an important secondary character in the first Tom Flanagan mystery, Cornflower's Ghost, which is featured on this website's publications page. Cornflower's Ghost also contains several scenes that take place in the Thousand Islands.)
The following Saturday, a week and a day after my first evening at Jimmy's, I kayaked downriver from the Boldt yacht house on Wellesley Island and into the collection of Islands known as the Summerland Group. My plan that afternoon was to paddle around there for a while, then head back west towards Boldt Castle and around the Sunken Rock Lighthouse, which sat atop one of the most dangerous shoals on the river. Then I’d cross back over to Wellesley Island, go home and grill a steak.
But as I was about to leave the Summerland Group I was hailed by a thin man with wet hair wearing a diving suit and holding a blow torch, standing on the shore of a small forested island with one secluded cottage and a three bay boathouse. Only when I got close and he took off the mask did I realize it was Billy Masterson.
"Almost finished," he said after catching my attention. "Come ashore and I’ll pop open a couple beers."
"Finished with what?" I asked after he had helped me out of my kayak and we had pulled the boat out of the water.
"Dismantlin' the Snell’s dock," he said.
"Desmond and Georgia Snell. They own this rock. But they took their cabin cruiser back to To-ron-to last week, and it’s my job to bring their dock in and shut the place up for the winter. Hey, where were you last night?"
"I was housecleaning," I said. "Take no offense: I'll be there this week."
We moved to the kitchen, and when Billy Masterson opened the refrigerator I saw canned beer, cold cuts, an unopened gallon of milk, a large hunk of cheddar cheese and a squeeze bottle of mustard.
He popped the top off a Genny Cream Ale and handed it to me. "I have a cabin over on the north side of Grindstone," he said. "But I cut back on my heat bills by caretakin' places like this. I have four of them from here up to Chippewa Bay. Check on one every month or so from now ‘til the end of April."
"Do the Snells know you’ve moved in?" I asked.
"Not sure," he said thoughtfully. He winked, and I nodded in return to assure him I’d keep his squatting a secret.
"So what about you?" he asked. "You all moved in?"
"I am," I said. "It’s good to be back in the place. I barely remembered it until I got to spend some time there alone. I cleaned the whole place up. Planted some flowers. It’s been a good week."
"Alone time’s what I love most about the river," Billy Masterson said. "When it’s just me and the water, me and the fish--that’s when I’m in heaven."
"I’ll be in heaven when I’m dead," I said. "This world is nothing but pain and sorrow."
"I’ll drink to that," he said, and downed the whole can of beer. Then he scratched his head and added, "But you gotta admit, even if you believe what you just said, that this place is as close to heaven as you’re gonna get."
"Not for me," I said. "My parents and brother died here."
He retrieved another beer from the fridge and cracked it open. "Sorry to rain on you pity parade, but so have thousands of other people, many of ‘em on the water. Death is a sure thing, Tom. I for one’d rather go here than anywhere else. Especially than in one of those towers." He shook his head quickly, as if shivering, then pointed to a chair. "Here, sit down. Stay awhile. You and I got some talkin' to do."
I sat and sipped my beer, taking in the ceramic tile and pink granite luxury of Desmond and Georgia Snell’s kitchen. I wondered from our conversation so far if Billy Masterson was religious. I asked him as much when he returned in a pair of denim shorts and a black long sleeve tee shirt that read "Molly Hatchet" in peeling vinyl letters across the chest.
"Born and raised Catholic," he said. "Still go to confession." He moved towards the door. "Get yourself another beer. Come on out. I need a smoke."
We sat on a log at the island’s shore near a small fire pit. The river was calm, the water just barely rippling in the breeze, and the seagulls were flying in circles overhead in their endless search for food.
"Do you go to St. Cyril’s?" I asked, referring to my family's summer church in Alexandria Bay, where, as I mentioned before, my parents' and brother's funeral was held five years ago.
"St. Mary’s," he said as he lit a cigarette. "You know my motto?"
"Sin in the Bay, confess in Clayton."
I laughed. "I appreciate your distinction between the profane and the sacred."
"I'm good at the profanity part," he said.
"We all are. It's the sacred we need help with."
Billy held his cigarette in the air and nodded. "But you know what’s most sacred to me?" he asked. "Even more than a church?"
"That's easy," I said, pointing with my beer can towards the river.
"Damn straight," he said, "even though they try their best to ruin it with their shippin' channels and oil spills and their regulated water levels and Sea-Doos." He almost spat out the last words, and his mouth was twisted in disdain as he spoke. But then he took a swig of beer and smiled. "But try as they might they can’t do it. Whatever they put in the river eventually washes away, you see. And that’s why this place is as close to heaven as we’re ever gonna get." Billy Masterson cleared his throat, then said in a baritone voice, "‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowin' from the throne of God...down the middle of the great street of the city.’"
I added, mimicking Billy's baritone, "‘And there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’"
"Amen to that," he said.
"You know what I've always wondered?" I asked. "How the Book of Revelation can be so reassuring and at the same time so bizarre."
"You mean the seals and scrolls and the four horsemen and the whore of Babylon and the plagues and the beasts and all that stuff?"
"Don't forget the white rider with his blazing eyes of fire and a sword coming out of his mouth."
He nodded. "Try this on for bizarre. Last spring I saw a dead cow floatin' down the river. It was belly up, and on top of it was a calf. The calf was lyin' down, and it's mouth was clamped to its mother’s teat like a pair of vice grips. I slapped myself to make sure I wasn’t dreamin'."
"And how exactly is that as close to heaven as we can get?"
"The cow was dead. Everything living dies. How else do you expect to get to heaven? Anyway, as I said before at least it died here, on this river.
"And think about that calf," Billy Masterson continued. "That calf was still alive. Who knows, maybe its mom got hung up on an island and the calf made it to safety. Maybe its still alive today, munchin' on some of that nice Wellesley Island grass of yours. Stranger things have happened."
"For example, stuff back before the US Army Corps of Engineers started regulatin' the water level all the way out in Niagara Falls. Houses washed away. Carriages with the dead horses still attached. A guy in his tub, drunk and passed out. They said when he woke up he stepped out to get his towel and got the surprise of his life! Is that any more bizarre than what’s in Revelation?"
"That was real."
"That was when the river was real. Today its’ just a glorified canal."
I nodded, thinking through his argument. I'd spent a lot of time on the Saint Lawrence since my arrival, and had been impressed by the power of the river's current. How much stronger had it been before being dredged and regulated by the US Army Corps of Engineers, harnessed by modern civilization? I recalled that even Charles Dickens--yes, that Charles Dickens--commented on the ferocity of the rapids during his 1842 journey downriver from Kingston to Montreal. I began to appreciate that the river's power might have had a mystical affect on those so inclined.
"Tell me if I'm getting your point," I said. "Let's try to imagine what a writer with an apocalyptic bent living two thousand years ago would’ve done with that image of the cow and calf. A sign of things to come? A glimpse of God's plan revealed? A metaphor for fallen and redeemed humanity?"
"You're gettin' my point," Billy Masterson said.
Billy’s love of the river opened the door to a topic that I hadn’t yet broached with any of my father’s friends save Martin Comstock, diverted as I was by reacquainting myself with Heron's Nest and the river. I took the opportunity to step right through. "Are you a member of Preserve the Islands?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Naw. I’m not much of a joiner. But I certainly do respect ‘em. How could I not with the work they've done for the river?"
"My dad used to say the same thing," I said. "My mom was enthusiastic, but my dad kind of just stayed off to the side. You know what I think it was?"
Billy Masterson puffed his cigarette and raised an eyebrow. I had a hunch that he did indeed know what it was.
"I think he had it in for Ben Fries."
"Sure did," Billy Masterson said, nodding. He snuffed out the cigarette and put the used filter into his shorts pocket. "Your father sure did have it in for good ol’ Mr. Fries." He pronounced the name with an exaggerated syllable, like "Freeeeze."
"I was only a kid back then," I said. "I never knew why he felt that way. I always thought it had something to do with pesticide use on a golf course."
Billy Masterson laughed, then glanced at me as he lit another cigarette. "You mean Ben didn’t tell you the real story? Not when you came to see him five years ago with that brunette?"
"How did you..." My words trailed off in surprise that Billy Masterson was aware of my visit with Julianne Radisson to learn what Ben knew about my mentor’s death and about her family’s past.
"One of my caretakin' gigs back then was two doors down from Heron’s Nest," he explained, "in the other direction from Ben's. When I saw you comin' that day I thought you might be movin' in. And with a chick like that..." He licked his finger and touched the lit end of the cigarette, causing a distinct and surprisingly loud hissing sound.
"You knew Ben?"
"Did I ever. More than once Ben Fries gave me reasons for a visit to the confessional." He stood up and stretched. "Remember that we’re all supposed to tell you our stories? To explain about your father and the gold? My story is about the gold, and it’s also about why your father had it in for Ben Fries."
By Thomas Pullyblank
Thomas Pullyblank was born and raised in rural upstate New York. Having earned degrees in history at the University at Albany and a Master of Divinity degree from the Boston University School of Theology, Pullyblank now teaches history at the SUNY College at Oneonta and serves as a United Methodist pastor near Cooperstown, New York. He lives on a small working farm with his wife and son. His first novel, Cornflower’s Ghost was published in 2009. Napoleon’s Gold is his second upstate New York historical mystery featuring Tom Flanagain. For more information about the author and Napoleon’s Gold, TI Life readers are invited to visit Square Circle Press.
Special appreciation goes to photographer Dani Baker, Cross Island Farm, Wellesley Island, for sharing her photographs. Dani’s profile was presented in TI Life in September 2009. All photographs were adapted to pen and ink illustrations by "fotosketch" (http://www.fotosketcher.com/). Also we thank Ian Coristine for his photograph of Wellesley Island, also adapted by "fotosketch".